Smart software improves environmental forecasting
Environmental scientists face many challenges in monitoring and understanding our planet’s changing climate.
Through an international collaboration called the Swiss Experiment, environmental scientists and computer science experts are deploying advanced sensor networks and data management tools to improve environmental monitoring and forecasting.
Mountains are the world’s water towers, capturing and storing moisture from the atmosphere. They spawn the rivers that nourish remote lowland ecosystems and supply water for our homes, as well as for irrigation, industry and hydroelectric power. By some estimates, more than half of the world’s population relies on fresh water that flows from mountains. And a large portion of the world’s people reside in mountain regions – their lives and livelihoods entwined with fragile alpine environments.
But there is growing evidence that the effects of global climate change are most pronounced at high altitudes. In many mountain regions, glaciers are receding and snowpack and permafrost patterns are shifting. Spurred by questions and concerns over these accelerating changes, scientists are turning more attention to the mountains.
A SensorScope weather station in the Swiss Alps – one of 16 deployed as part of the Swiss Experiment project.
One effort in this area is a project called the Swiss Experiment, a collaboration of environmental scientists and computer science experts from around the world. By combining powerful new data-gathering, sharing and visualisation software with sophisticated remote sensor networks deployed in the Swiss Alps, the project could dramatically improve our ability to monitor and understand environmental conditions in the mountains as well as other geologic regions.
Launched in 2007 by the Swiss-based Competence Centre for Environment and Sustainability and the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research in Mobile Information and Communication Systems, the Swiss Experiment is supported by several leading research institutions and other organisations. Microsoft External Research is playing a key role, providing financial support and Web-based software tools that enable the scientists to quickly browse huge amounts of environmental data and visually explore the information in spatial and temporal contexts, such as through a 3-D mapping interface and over time.
Besides providing more insight into the local effects of climate change, the project could also enhance scientists’ ability to predict dangerous weather-related events such as floods, avalanches and mudslides. Another goal is to provide new tools for environmental educators and valuable information sources for policymakers, resource managers and the public.
“There is not a very good understanding of weather processes at the regional scale,” says Karl Aberer, a computer science professor at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland and one of the lead researchers on the project. “That’s because they simply are lacking good models – and they are lacking models because they don’t have the data.”
Until recently, the technology available for many types of environmental monitoring had significant limitations.
For instance, researchers studying alpine conditions typically had to rely on a small number of bulky and expensive measurement stations that could not be remotely controlled or monitored.
Researchers make adjustments to a SensorScope weather station (inset) located on a debris-covered glacier on Le Génépi, a mountain in the Swiss Alps. Right: Karl Aberer, Martin Vetterli and Marc Parlange from the EPFL, Switzerland.
But recent advances in sensors and wireless technology are creating vast new research opportunities. With more powerful and affordable sensors, scientists today are able to gather environmental data on a scale hardly imaginable a decade ago.
Several of these new monitoring tools are being demonstrated in the Swiss Experiment by research teams from a broad range of disciplines, including hydrologists, climatologists, soil scientists, seismologists and avalanche experts.
“Swiss Experiment means not only faster and more efficient data access and data exploitation, it also means more data at a cheaper price,” says Michael Lehning, head of the snow and permafrost study unit at WSL, the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research in Davos. “With the new sensor systems being developed, we can afford to have a higher density of measurement stations, which is of particular value in the very heterogeneous mountain environment.”
One particularly promising new sensor platform is EPFL’s SensorScope, a multi-purpose weather station that continuously measures conditions such as air temperature, precipitation, wind speed and direction, solar radiation and soil moisture. The stations, which at about €2,000 apiece cost a fraction of traditional stations, are solar-powered and equipped with wireless communications devices.
In 2007, researchers used helicopters to place 16 SensorScope stations on a debris-covered glacier on Le Génépi, a mountain in the Alps, to measure atmospheric conditions over a four-month period. Seven other, more conventional stations were deployed to create a permanent observatory at a site called Wannengrat, about 2,400 metres above the city of Davos. The Wannengrat deployment, which was temporarily augmented by several SensorScope stations, is taking second-by-second measurements of snow levels and other weather conditions.
‘There is not a very good understanding of weather processes at the regional scale.’- Karl Aberer, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne
Array on the Matterhorn
Swiss Experiment teams are using a variety of other sensor networks. For example, a project called PermaSense is gathering data from an array of tiny permafrost sensors mounted on the face of the Matterhorn.
While these sensor technologies are generating vast volumes of research data, the flow of information also poses major computational challenges. Microsoft researchers have teamed up with other computer scientists at the Swiss Experiment to create a software platform that enables scientists to manage and make sense of the huge quantity of data. Two Microsoft technologies – SenseWeb and SensorMap – are key components of that platform.
In simplified terms, the platform gives scientists a dashboard of meters that show what’s happening in the mountains.
SensorMap is a powerful Web-based tool that enables scientists to view large quantities of data more efficiently and in rich detail. For example, scientists can view data in real time, enabling them to make adjustments in their experiment or to spot anomalies that might indicate a malfunction with a particular sensor.
SensorMap also enables scientists to view data from a geospatial perspective. For instance, during the experiment at Le Génépi, the scientists could use measurements from the 16 SensorScope stations to produce a 3-D topography map showing temperature gradients over the entire terrain of the study site, plotted over a certain time period in an animation.
This sort of capability makes it easier for researchers to spot interesting or significant trends and features in the data.
SensorMap’s supporting infrastructure, SenseWeb, simplifies a lot of data management tasks for scientists, such as cleaning up erroneous data, archiving and sharing massive data streams, and indexing them for efficient querying.
Another key benefit of the Swiss Experiment platform is that it enables scientists across disciplines to more easily share and reuse data and collaborate on research projects. And, the researchers say, the project is creating a universal platform that could be adapted for studying any sort of ecosystem or landscape – from deserts and rainforests to farms and urban settings.
“Instead of every person having to design and implement their own data infrastructure, which basically means reinventing the wheel over and over again, we now can benefit from a generic solution for many common data acquisition and analysis problems,” Lehning says.
Aberer envisions a day when virtually the entire planet will be monitored by increasingly elaborate sensor networks.
“I think we’re just scratching the surface with this project,” he says. “There are big changes ahead.”
At a glance
Project: The Swiss Experiment
Lausanne and Davos, Switzerland
Marc Parlange, professor of environmental fluid mechanics and hydrology, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL),Switzerland
Karl Aberer, professor of computer science, EPFL
Martin Vetterli, professor of computer science, EPFL
Michael Lehning, WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research, SLF Davos
SenseWeb, SensorMap, SQL Server 2008, Bing Maps/Virtual Earth, Microsoft Research Networked Embedded Sensing Toolkit